Mud fight in the Pinelands

Tire ruts in a wood near Whitesbog mark a trail used by off-road vehicles. (NJ Spotlight)

Tire ruts in a wood near Whitesbog mark a trail used by off-road vehicles. (NJ Spotlight)

Along the south branch of South Jersey’s Forked River, less than a mile west of the Garden State Parkway, conservationists planted 300 Atlantic white cedars in an attempt to stop off-road vehicles driving along the shallow river and worsening erosion that has already damaged the environment there.

The stand of three-foot trees was designed to restrict the area where vehicles such as jeeps and ATVs can drive, and over time to allow the river banks to recover after years of degradation due to the vehicles.

Early in August, just two weeks after being planted by a team of volunteers, about half the trees were ripped out of the sandy banks, sprinkled with gasoline, and burned in what conservationists describe as a giant bonfire.

The vandalism appears to be a new act of defiance by some members of the off-road community against long-running efforts by state and local officials, police, and private conservation groups to protect the Pinelands from damage by the vehicles.

The vehicles are supposed to stay on marked trails and sand roads but according to their critics, too many off-roaders stray from established backroads in search of rocky slopes, muddy wetlands, and sandy areas where they can test their vehicles and their driving skills in rough terrain.

What’s more, efforts by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and other environmentalists to curb off-road vehicle (ORV) use have been stymied by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which has withdrawn proposed regulations in the face of fierce protests by some off-road vehicle drivers. Instead, DEP says it is stepping up enforcement.

A few bad apples?

The result of years of ORV use is some places amid the one million-plus acres of the Pinelands where soil is eroded, waterways are diverted, and endangered species of plants and animals are besieged by spinning tires and roaring engines.

Some groups of off-roaders say they never stray off established trails and sand roads, and argue that the damage caused to places like the Forked River crossing is caused by a few lawless individuals who resist efforts to control what they believe is their traditional right to roam the Pinelands at will.

“Any user of any recreational activity that doesn’t abide by the rules should be banned from the activity,” said Pearse Umlauf, vice president of Jeep Jamboree USA, a California-based organization that holds annual rallies for around 100 jeep drivers in the Pinelands.

Jeep Jamboree, which meets in about 30 states, is “100 percent content” with staying on established roads and trails set by the Pinelands Commission, which issues permits to the organization for its events, Umlauf said. He said there should be “very stiff” fines for any recreational users, including off-road vehicle drivers, who break the rules, but argued that the authorities should not punish whole groups for the actions of a few individuals.

Still, the Jeep Jamboree website said wetlands — a particular concern for Pinelands conservationists — would be a major attraction of this year’s Pinelands event in March. “There is usually an abundance of water, so expect to get your feet wet and your Jeep 4X4 muddy in the many holes and water crossings,” it said.

Whether the Pinelands are being damaged by a few out-of-control individuals or a whole class of off-road vehicles, it is clear that some sites continue to be impacted despite efforts by the authorities to control off-roading, and that after years of confrontation between the two sides, the issue is far from resolved.

A plan to fix things

Groups such as the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance had high hopes last year that the fight could finally be settled by a draft “Motorized Access Plan” (MAP), a state document that proposed reducing access to Wharton State Forest for the vehicles while keeping open 225 miles of specified roads and trails. The state also produced a document containing the main aspects of the plan.

The total length of trails that would have been kept open under the plan represented a reduction of about 20 percent compared with the number that existed when the Pinelands Protection Act was passed in 1979. But if compared with the hundreds of illegal trails that have been created since then, the plan’s mileage represented a much greater cut of about 50 percent, estimated Emile DeVito, manager of science and stewardship at the NJCF, and an outspoken advocate for restrictions on ORV use in the Pinelands.

The plan, the result of years of work by Rob Auermuller, the former superintendent of Wharton State Forest, and other state officials, was submitted in 2015 but then withdrawn later that year by the Department of Environmental Protection after a storm of protest by ORV drivers and other user groups — to the dismay of the conservation community.

Mark Texel, the DEP’s director of parks and forestry, said the plan was dropped because it failed to meet the needs of a range of users in the forest. “We had worked with a number of stakeholders but as we began to look carefully at it, we realized we had to do much more outreach, much more community involvement to really get everybody’s input,” he said.

Enforce existing laws

After more discussions with user groups, DEP officials determined that they needed instead to step up enforcement against illegal off-road activity; do more to educate the public on what constitutes illegal activity, and keep drivers out of the most environmentally sensitive areas.

Since March this year, the DEP has assigned six state park officers to patrol Wharton State Forest, and their presence has resulted in three to four times as many tickets being issued to drivers who are going off permitted trails, damaging natural areas, or driving unlicensed vehicles such as ATVs and dirt bikes, which are not permitted on any state land, Texel said. Some vehicles have been impounded in “especially egregious cases.”

“That was a pretty strong indicator that we were getting the message out,” he said. “We were getting good feedback from a number of our user groups saying that the presence of officers patrolling has been a very positive thing.”

With the help of volunteers from outdoors groups, the DEP also posted 65 signs at various forest entrances, stating that any drivers who leave established roads and trails in Wharton State Forest risk a fine of $250 or more or having their vehicles impounded. Around a dozen of the signs prohibit ORVs in especially sensitive areas.

The new enforcement regime is designed to send a message that off-road drivers stand a greater chance of being ticketed if they stray off established trails, especially if they go into wetlands for so-called mudding events — which involve spinning the tires on ORV to throw mud — which have caused some of the most severe damage.

Pineland politics

While DEP officials say the MAP was dropped because it needed more input from forest users, the real reason, conservationists say, was political pressure from the off-road community on the governor’s office, which forced the DEP to scrap it.

Resistance to the plan was led by groups including the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance which used a lobbying firm to take the fight to the governor’s office, said DeVito of NJCF. He said DEP initially supported the plan but then dropped it after pressure from outdoors groups.

“There are several groups that fight for the right for recreational vehicles to go where they want, and they got backing. They were fighting it tooth and nail, and they had huge crowds turn out, and that was it, the DEP just shut it all down,” DeVito said. “It was definitely political.”

Brian Murray, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, dismissed as “baseless allegations” and “weird conspiracy theories” the claim that Christie had forced DEP to drop the plan. A spokesman for the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance did not respond to a request for comment.

But John Druding, vice president of Open Trails New Jersey, which represents groups such as hunters, horseback riders, and kayakers, as well as ORV drivers, supported the DEP’s withdrawal of the MAP, which he called “significant overreach.” Druding said most users of Wharton State Forest are content with the current policy of more enforcement coupled with better public education.

“Most people are now happy with the current level of access and with the DEP’s new enforcement policy,” Druding said. “By and large, I don’t think anybody thinks it significantly impacts their ability to responsibly use motorized vehicles in the forests.”

Druding said he was not defending drivers’ right to go “mudding” in sensitive areas but just to drive legal vehicles on existing roads.

Critics of the DEP’s new policy say it’s still not clear where off-roaders can and cannot drive their vehicles on state lands, and it’s hard for law enforcement to prove in court that a driver has broken the law.

Even though the DEP’s new signs are designed to tell drivers whether a specific area is on- or off-limits, an arrest won’t necessarily stand up in court, argued Mark Lohbauer, the former chairman of the Pinelands Commission, and now a member of the panel that is charged with protecting the Pinelands.

“The problem with enforcement is that they cannot show that somebody was where they should not have been. They can’t point to a map and say ‘your honor, that’s not a road,’” Lohbauer told NJ Spotlight. “In their defense, the person shows the judge a picture and says ‘Your honor, doesn’t this look like a road? That’s where I was.’”

Without a detailed map of the forest — like the one scrapped by the DEP — officers will continue to find it hard to control off-road use, Lohbauer predicted.

“Frankly, if you put enough vehicles through a spot in Wharton State Forest, you will dig up the vegetation, you will expose the sand, and it will look as much like a regular road in the forest as anywhere else,” he said.

The latest plan

As a result, commission staffers — at the request of Lohbauer and some other commissioners — are developing another access plan that would clearly identify all the roads and trails in Wharton State Forest that are permitted for off-road vehicle use, and would pinpoint sensitive areas, Lohbauer said.

“Broadly, it proposes to identify sensitive areas within Wharton State Forest that we would like the DEP to make sure are protected against the public activity and public destruction by vehicles,” he said.

Asked whether the new document would propose restricting ORV use in the forest, Lohbauer said: “The document, by identifying roads that are available to public use, will conversely be saying what is not available to public use. It will be trying to settle that debate.”

The new plan would differ from the DEP’s version by working from USGS maps, and by starting from some commissioners’ recommendations for areas that should be protected.

“It’s very unlikely to be the same thing as the DEP developed,” Lohbauer said.

The plan is expected to be considered by a policy committee in September and to go before the full commission later in the fall, said Lohbauer, who was ousted as commission chairman by Gov. Christie in January after his opposition to construction of a natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands.

If approved, the new plan would give park rangers a document that they could use to challenge drivers who are outside permitted areas. “If we go to court, we will be able to show a judge: ‘Here’s where we found the vehicle, here’s where the MAP is,’” Lohbauer said.

Although the DEP has already withdrawn its own MAP, the Pinelands Commission is entitled to make a new version under its Comprehensive Management Plan, as long as it shares its version with the DEP, he said.

“The authority is with the Pinelands Commission to make designations about land use but we are required to do it in consultation with the DEP,” Lohbauer said.

Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, said he could not comment on any “hypothetical” new plan by the Pinelands Commission.

Beyond the Pinelands

The long-running fight over access to the Pinelands extends outside state lands like Wharton State Forest, putting pressure on conservation groups, townships, and private land owners to find ways of controlling the vehicles.

In Ocean County, New Jersey on a 4,000-acre tract owned by the NJCF, years of off-roading have eroded the banks of the Forked River’s south branch where it crosses the line of the former Tuckerton Railroad. Two rusty pipes that were originally installed to take the water underneath the railroad now sit exposed above the waterline which has dropped as the river has widened over the collapsing banks. In the summer, the shallower water warms, altering the ecology, conservationists say.

While conservationists don’t expect to be able to stop off-road vehicles driving across the Forked River at that location, they hoped to stop them driving along it, and so placed a line of logs and fallen branches to protect the freshly planted saplings on the riverbank. The protective barrier evidently wasn’t enough to stop half the saplings being torn out and burned in early August.

But nearby, the NJCF has had more success affixing about 900 feet of three-quarter-inch steel cable to trees at the edges of a well-used sandy track, a move that has so far prevented vehicles entering the forest at that site.

Efforts to restrict access to the Pinelands at the NJCF property, and in an adjacent Wildlife Management Area owned by the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, are challenged by off-roaders’ ability to drive their vehicles directly off the Garden State Parkway into the woods.

At eight locations between Exits 69 and 74 on the southbound side, drivers who want to go off-road without the inconvenience of using an exit ramp can simply pull off onto the grass verge, drive around intermittent crash barriers, and enter the forest via car-sized tracks through the trees. Around a dozen other gaps in the forest edge are big enough for ATVs to enter, said Bill Scullion, a land steward who monitors the area for NJCF. On a recent visit by a reporter, some of the entrances had been blocked with logs placed by environmentalists or law enforcement, but other obstacles had been removed.

The ease of access from a major highway helps to explain the frequent presence on Pinelands trails of vehicles from as far away as Maryland and New York.

Gates at the entrances of popular off-road areas are often torn down, said Tim Morris, Director of Stewardship at the NJCF, although one private landowner along Lacey Road in Ocean County has apparently got serious about preventing off-roaders entering his land by installing a gate made of eight-inch steel pipe filled with concrete, and painted orange. To discourage people from using bolt-cutters to break into the property, the gate has a padlock inside one of the pipes.

There has recently been less illegal off-road vehicle use on the NJCF property, thanks to new cooperation on enforcement between four local townships and the state police, Morris said.

Further north, the Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area in Jackson Township also attracts off-roaders, especially to a hilltop near the Great Adventure amusement park, where the vehicles have gouged ruts as deep as six feet in the soil, creating steep, rocky channels for off-road drivers to test their limits.

And at a wetland site near the Burlington County village of Whitesbog, the birthplace of the state’s blueberry industry, and now part of Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, deep tire ruts run through the sandy banks and into the shallow water, creating muddy tracks visible from the shore.

A tree amid the wetland has a roughly painted sign saying “Lou’s Lake,” a memorial to Louis Sweet, a local man who enjoyed driving his truck there until he was killed by masked men at his home in 2013, according to Jason Howell, stewardship coordinator with the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. The dead man’s sons painted the sign on the hood of his mudding truck and hung it in the tree to commemorate their father’s activities there, Howell said.

The story of “Lou’s Lake” is told on Pine Barrens Under Siege, a website run by Al Horner, a photographer and long-time campaigner for restrictions on vehicular access to the Pinelands.

The Backlash

In his blog, Horner says damage to the wetlands has been caused by “the entire community” rather than just a few “renegades in the night.”

Horner’s commentary, in January this year, provoked furious online responses from local people.

“That pathetic lake you’re talking about is named after my uncle you ***hole and not only that but that place that you’re acting like we destroy and wreck so much is called down back and that’s the home to some of the best memories in some peoples lives,” a commenter named Melody Beam wrote on Horner’s site in February.

Horner, who said he has been threatened by his opponents, said such statements reflect a local culture that is devastating the Pinelands.

“This is what their hobby is, this is what they’ve invested their money in and they’re going to fight for that,” he said in an interview. “It would be the same as if you tried to shut down hunters’ rights.”

Horner said off-roaders have a right to use their ORVs in the forest but not to damage it so that others can’t enjoy it.

“We all bought this area to save it and preserve it,” he said. “We didn’t buy it to run it over. They have the right to recreate, of course, and we want them to, but we want it to be fair to the environment, and to other people. You can be walking these roads and 20 dirt bikes come roaring through. You just have to wait until they’re through.”

The Monster Trucks arrive

While the MAP was designed to manage only the 120,000-acre Wharton State Forest, which occupies about a tenth of the Pinelands’ total area, it could have become a template for the rest of the Pinelands that face similar challenges, Horner said.

In Wharton State Forest, there are some areas that conservationists say continue to suffer environmental damage despite the DEP’s new policy.

At a “paleo dune,” an elevated area of fine sand created during the last Ice Age, DeVito of the NJCF stood amid circular tire tracks that he said were created by four-wheel drive vehicles simply going around and around at high speed. “I call these idiot circles,” he said.

The damage caused by off-roading has become worse as the vehicles have gotten bigger, including so-called monster trucks with 40-inch wheels, DeVito said.

“When these rules were created years and years ago, the only thing that existed was a little four-wheel drive or two-wheel-drive pickup truck,” he said. “Nowadays, people have vehicles that can just go through the forest any way they want and make a road. They are turning places with natural vegetation into muddy, eroded ruts. They keep getting bigger and bigger, and can literally just make the forest go away.”

Can a compromise be reached?

Despite the failure of the MAP, and continuing conflict between the two groups, there are grounds to hope that they can coexist peacefully in the Pinelands, but only if there’s a plan to manage the area in a way that protects both the environment and the interests of all users, conservationists say.

“We’re willing to compromise if there’s a reason why we should compromise,” said Horner. “We all want to use this as much as we can, too. We don’t want as many restrictions but it’s come down to the point where you really do have to restrict it.”


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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